Column by Mahfuz Anam: Restoring Jatiya Sangsad’s moral high ground

The Daily Star  February 26, 2021

Time for a code of conduct for the lawmakers

In the recent past, our honourable members of parliament have been known more for their legal actions against journalists—first under the ICT Act, then the Digital Security Act (DSA)—than for any consequential legislation in any of the vital fields of economic, social or democratic advancement. The “crimes” of the journalists were that they allegedly hurt the image, sentiment, reputation and feelings of the venerable public representatives. So heightened is the sense of “self-image” that not only the MPs but their supporters also feel free—and we dare say, encouraged—to take journalists to court if the latter feel that their leaders’ image or reputation has been “hurt”.

When such is the degree of their sensitivity, it is important to know what actions the same MPs take to “protect their image” at a time when it is being so devastatingly shattered by the likes of Mohammad Shahid Islam, an MP from Laxmipur-2 constituency, popularly known as Kazi Papul. He has been convicted in Kuwait for human trafficking and bribing local officials. There are two other charges pending, including one related to prostitution. Our own Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC)—described as a “toothless tiger” by one of its own former chiefs—is investigating a case of amassing wealth over Tk 1,400 crore through human trafficking. Papul’s wife, who is also an MP from the reserved seats for women, has been fined Kuwaiti dinar 1.7 million (Tk 55 crore) in the same case. We have heard of no action taken against her yet, except her being questioned by the ACC.

How did Papul get his MP nomination in the first place? Media reports repeatedly brought out the fact that he paid crores of taka to procure his nomination and also paid off potential opponents to clear the way for him to contest. His wife is accused of having done the same to become an MP from the reserved seats for women and is being investigated by the ACC.

How many others are there who may have gotten their nomination in the same process? How big is the so-called “nomination business” that we hear about every time an election comes our way? How much does the party involved makes in this process, and what is the share of those who help out?

Hasn’t the image of our parliament, of our MPs, and of the whole legislative process been “maligned” a thousand times more by these actions by one of their own? According to a report of bdnews24.com published on October 30, 2020, the ACC is investigating the affairs of 21 MPs in connection with various cases of corruption and scandals. Of them, 11 are being investigated for syphoning off government funds, grabbing government land, taking bribes and illegal commissions and indulging in extortion, etc.—and another 10 for having income far above their legal source of income. Then there’s the case of MP Moazzem Hossain (Ratan) of Sunamganj-1 who, according to a Prothom Alo report on February 20, occupied some neighbours’ land to build his palatial house—an accusation that he denies. This is but the latest of similar reports that many newspapers regularly carry. The same MP is being investigated by the ACC also.

In its report of October 14, 2012 (though nine years old, but nothing appears to have changed), the Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) did an overview study of the major newspapers’ reports on lawmakers of the 9th parliament covering the period from 2009 to 2012. To further substantiate the study, TIB conducted 44 group discussions in 42 districts involving 600 prominent and credible citizens known for their objective stance. The analysis showed that 181 MPs had been subjects of negative press reports and none gave any rejoinder or protested against those reports.

There were a number of positive feedbacks about the work of the MPs in this study. For example, 35 percent of MPs were praised for their contribution in the health and education sectors, 31.3 percent praised for their work connected to local infrastructure development, 10 percent for personal initiatives in helping the poor and getting relief assistance for the locals, 6.3 percent for ensuring rule of law and helping the farmers, 5 percent for empowering women and 17.5 percent for various other positive contributions.

But there was also a contrary picture. Eighty-one percent of MPs were criticised for abusing their power and influencing the administrative work in favour of their chosen ones, 76.6 percent for taking over control of local schools, 75.5 percent for misuse of development funds, 70.6 percent for being involved in criminal activities, 69.2 percent for abusing the official procurement process, and 8.4 percent for procuring government plots by giving false information.

Perhaps the most alarming of the above findings was the involvement of MPs in criminal activities, including alleged involvement with murder, land grabbing (including khas land, river banks, ponds, water bodies), extortion, tender manipulation, ransom, etc. MPs were seen to be involved with all the big crimes of their respective areas by their voters.

The above study does not include the benefits our MPs enjoy as a favour from rich and unscrupulous businessmen. In fact, we do not have the institutional capacity to discover such irregularities as they require sophisticated financial tools.

It is not our intention to show how corrupt our legislators are. In fact, a recent revelation of the British MPs’ financial corruption showed a huge number of them having massively misused their various allowances and taken illegal benefits as MPs. There are plenty of such stories from many countries, both Western and Asian, where lawmakers regularly indulge in corruption. Our intention is to help improve, mend, become better and regain the credibility and respect that is a precondition for the parliament to be effective.

Perhaps what’s different in our case is that we do not do anything about the corruption of our MPs even when facts hit ourselves in the face. When something is revealed accidentally, we see a sudden spurt of activity and cries of “nobody is above the law”. And then when nothing happens, we are told that “the law will take its natural course”, followed by “it takes time—nothing can be done overnight”. This goes on until some other revelation grabs our attention and the same process starts all over again.

We want this to change. We want to see that when some serious research findings are made public, instead of the usual cacophony of “this is a conspiracy to malign us”, we will take some note of the findings and try to correct ourselves and make our parliament live up to the expectations of the public.

In this regard, we want to recall a valiant effort made by a ruling party MP, Saber Hossain Chowdhury, who submitted a Private Members Bill to the Speaker in 2010, suggesting a “code of conduct for MPs” and the formation of a House Ethics Committee to oversee the implementation of the code and related matters of integrity and honesty. The Bill stipulates seven general principles—namely selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership—as fundamental qualities that an MP must possess to serve the electorate effectively, efficiently and fairly.

In this Bill, Saber Hossain made a vital point about how to deal with “conflict of interest”—a concept that we do not think much about, if at all—between the personal world of an MP and the public world of his electorate, the world from which he comes and which he is elected to serve. The Bill goes on to provide clear provisions for disclosure of an MP’s personal and family businesses and other proprietorial interests including receiving gifts, using public resources, interacting with ministries and public bodies.

As stated earlier, this remarkable Bill provides for the formation of an Ethics Committee headed by the Speaker and nine members from the treasury and opposition benches to which anyone could file a complaint about a sitting MP and with whose proceedings every MP would be obliged to cooperate. The proposed Bill required the Ethics Committee to submit an annual report to the House.

What do you think happened to this Bill? Not only did it never come anywhere near being adopted, but it was also never even seriously discussed. We think privately Saber Hossain might have been even laughed at.

Need we stress that the nature and effectiveness of parliament depend on the type of parliamentarians we elect? That depends on the ways that nominations are given from different parties. Now, if the process starts on a corrupt premise—in which electability does not depend on the honesty or public service orientation of a candidate but on how much one can afford to spend in an election—then, obviously, “electability” acquires a whole new definition which cannot bring good to the electorate, the country and democracy.

If laws are to be just and pro-people, then we must necessarily have an elected parliament constituted by individuals of character, integrity, vision and love for the people who elect them. In other words, members of parliament must be persons of impeccable reputation.

The case of Papul must act as a wake-up call if we are serious about institutionalising democracy in whose centre stands the Jatiya Sangsad.

 

Mahfuz Anam is Editor and Publisher, The Daily Star.

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